Leavetaking: In the middle of my grief, my partner arranges a mock war

His positivity is infectious, and I’ve been draining it to keep myself afloat as I try to cope with my mother's terminal cancer

“Someone would glibly say ‘at least you’ll get a column out of it’ to me every time I got shot.” Photograph: Thinkstock

“Someone would glibly say ‘at least you’ll get a column out of it’ to me every time I got shot.” Photograph: Thinkstock

 

In the days after my mother’s terminal diagnosis, I would awaken each morning to the usual view of the bedroom wall or ceiling, and there would be a moment. One moment before I remembered. That was a dangerous time, because each morning the grief would crash around inside my head as I lay there, as if for the first time. I thought that phase was unbearable.

I’ve since discovered, though, that the succeeding phase is worse. Now, I wake up every morning just knowing that my mother is dying. It doesn’t need to enter my awareness because it never leaves. It is a fact that is knitted into my bones. I carry it around with me. Rather than being something I’m aware of, it has now become the context of my awareness.

Everything in my life is filtered through the knowledge of my mother’s impending death. That represents a fundamental change in how I see the world. As well as fearing and grieving the loss of my mother – even though she’s still here – I fear and grieve the loss of parts of myself.

Surviving 30 years

I was sitting at my desk a few weeks ago, wallowing in the melancholy of this realisation, when my partner bounced into the room. He was about to turn 30, and in his usual optimistic and jovial fashion, had decided that his achievement – surviving 30 years without falling down a well or losing his unflinching positivity – could be marked only with the time-honoured tradition of paintball.

“Right,” I said. “So . . . you want to shoot people for your birthday?”

“Yes,” he said. “Just my friends. And they’ll shoot back. It’ll be great.” With that, he bounced back out of the room to make phone calls and arrange a mock war.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was the worst idea in the history of ideas, worse than Marmite or Stalingrad or bootcut jeans. We would fly to the UK to shoot people in overalls at great expense, and someone would glibly say “at least you’ll get a column out of it” to me every time I got shot.

Three weeks later, I’m hunched behind a bale of hay with paint pellets flying past at 200mph and exploding against everything around me. It’s only paint, but we’ve been warned the impact hurts, and I can’t see where the members of the opposing team are.

There’s sweat running down my spine, I’m panting from nerves rather than exhaustion, and suddenly people I was having a friendly lunch with an hour ago are trying to shoot me in the head. The headgear covers face, ears and eyes, but your head can fend for itself.

What’s a little pain?

People are flying about around me, screaming, shooting and performing death leaps behind hay bales.

From my squatting position wedged between two bales, I think about my mother at home. Since she got sick, everything hits me and stings. What’s a little paint pellet compared with that? I chastise myself for having become so selfish and consumed by my own sadness. If I at least try to participate in the fun, some of it might be absorbed, and I can help to give a nice afternoon to the big fellow I’m so fond of, the one who is currently walking back to the safe area with a big paint splatter on his chest and an even bigger grin on his happy face.

His positivity is infectious, and I realise that I’ve been draining it to keep myself afloat. When someone you love is dying, they become the focus, while others you love are often left alone. He deserves my participation in this madness, and it might not be as bad as I think.

Endeavouring to get over myself, join in and have fun, I tell my knees that they’re going to spring. With gusto, I jump up over the hay bale and aim at a member of the opposing team. I’m immediately shot in the head, just over the ear and stumble over my own feet from the impact. At least I’ll get a column out of it.

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